Preparing for a Linux Desktop Migration: Practical Advice

Linux Mascot:  Tux I recently commented on a discussion about a planned migration to Linux in order to avoid having to deal with Windows Vista. It seems that it takes more searching than one should expect if one is attempting to find positive reviews. Some companies are electing to not to make the switch at all, waiting instead to see what the next version will bring.  Vista is easily the biggest flop in the product line since Windows Me. When I purchased a new HP laptop last year, I received a coupon for an upgrade from Windows XP to Vista (the unit shipped with XP), I didn’t bother to redeem it. My laptop is running Mandriva, and though it still dual-boots to XP, I haven’t used the option in more than a year now. The recent discussion got me thinking about my own migration from Windows 2000 to Linux, and what advice I might offer.

I’ve been toying with Linux for almost ten years now, though it hasn’t been quite that long since I abandoned Windows as my primary environment. I thought back to what kept me from making the shift wholesale.  At first, it probably had to do with the cryptic modem string that I had to decode and enter in order to get dialed up to the Internet… but those days are long-gone.  Installing Linux is much easier now, barring insistence on any decidedly unusual hardware. I think for most people now, it comes down to the applications. Most people have one or two apps in which they spend most of their time, and familiarity with these apps will tend to hold people to their current platform if it isn’t available on Linux. The most common of these seem to be Word, Outlook, Photoshop, and Quickbooks. In my view, most or all of these present more of a barrier than they should, but the barrier exists nonetheless.

The single biggest piece of advice I would offer to someone planning a migration is to start early by switching from their Windows-only applications to cross-platform alternatives. Move from Internet Explorer to Firefox, and from Outlook to Thunderbird, with Sunbird or Lightning for calendaring. Migrate from MS Office suite to Open Office. These substitutions are among the most obvious, and some disorientation will be natural as the subtleties of the new applications are learned. In most cases, the learning curve won’t be very steep at all, and users can be productive in these applications quite quickly, bringing most or all of their data along into the new applications.

As I consider the most common resistance points in a migration, it may come down to the fact that in the earliest days after making the switch, users tend to feel like “everything’s different” in their environment, so their productivity is hampered in every area. In fact, I’m convinced that this is the single biggest cause of failed migrations — people who “tried Linux” but went back.  By migrating software applications one by one, the disorientation is minimized so that it is not an overwhelming all-at-once occurrence. Once the change has been made in all or most of the common applications, a change to the operating system beneath them will have surprisingly little impact, so that the change from Windows to Linux becomes just one more simple environmental change — and an incremental one at that.

The application I’ve seen with the biggest resistance is probably Photoshop, where users often offer a peremptory, “I don’t like GIMP.” The GIMP is the most common image application on Linux, but is a cross-platform application as well. One Photoshop-user I know made peace with Krita for a while, saying it was much more similar to Photoshop. He eventually went back to Photoshop — but running on WINE, which facilitates running a wide array of Windows applications on Linux. Accounting applications like Quickbooks are a bit trickier, but I am less familiar with the variety of alternatives. Like most applications, alternatives exist for Linux and are increasingly appearing as online applications run from the browser. Specialty applications will require a bit of research, but alternates are out there to be discovered and tried. Try to do this research beforehand to avoid surprises. If all else fails, you can always keep a Windows PC running “headless” someplace… when I need to use Windows for something like this (most often for testing websites in Internet Explorer) I simply connect to it from my Linux desktop using a Remote Desktop or VNC connection.

In short, you want to plan ahead and begin taking migration steps as you are comfortable with them rather than waiting to do it all one weekend. This approach will minimize any hits your productivity will take and make the migration less painful.  As a result, the migration has a much higher chance of success without the temptation to go back. Whether the migration is a single home desktop or a 100-user network, I am convinced this approach will work to the same effect, keeping users happy and productive through what for some might otherwise be a difficult migration.

Of course, all this is without discussing the selection of a Linux distribution, and I haven’t even begun to talk about the benefits of moving to Linux…